WASHINGTON — A U.S. government initiative to ship half a billion free COVID-19 tests to Americans will struggle to reach one of the communities that has been hardest hit by the pandemic — Native Americans living on rural reservations.
The administration launched a website — COVIDTests.gov — on January 19, which links to an online U.S. Postal Service order form where people can sign up for four free tests per household.
But experts say it is unclear how the tests will reach families living in places like Vanderwagen, New Mexico, a rural community of about 2,000 citizens spread out across 440-square kilometers of the Navajo Nation.
Most of the residents live on unpaved roads that have no names and in houses that are unnumbered. Residents who want to receive mail must rent a post office box, according to E.J. John, a research analyst at Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute and a citizen of the Navajo Nation who grew up in Vanderwagen.
“The post office closed down a couple of years ago,” he said, explaining that USPS has since set up a pair of cluster mailboxes just outside the local trading post. But not everyone can afford to pay the required six months’ rent at a time, John said.
“You’ll see multiple names on one box,” he said. “A lot of people just often end up sharing them.”
Folks in Vanderwagen, as in other rural tribal communities across the U.S., face other challenges in getting the tests.
“Anything that requires you to log on to a website and put in an address, whether for shopping online or trying to sign up for auto insurance, it’s a challenge,” John said.
Most Navajo homes are located far from the main road and lack basics such as electricity and running water. And while the White House has announced a toll-free number that people can call to order kits, that doesn’t help everyone.
“Even where there is cellphone coverage, you’re lucky to have phones that just allow talk and text,” said John. “Landline coverage isn’t as available as it used to be, due to issues with rights of way and providers just leaving the area.”
White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said last week the administration is working to ensure that the test kits reach communities where need is greatest — areas plagued by poverty, poor housing, a lack of transportation and inadequate medical care — all factors which put populations at higher risk for COVID-19.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index, Vanderwagen is among the most vulnerable spots in America.
VOA reached out to the Indian Health Service (IHS), a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that provides health care to federally recognized Native American tribes and Alaska Native people in more than 160 facilities.
“We have at-home test kits that we distribute to tribal organizations and urban Indian organizations,” IHS public affairs director Jennifer Buschick told VOA. “We anticipated the current surge, and our service supply center, actually, ordered plenty of at-home test kits…well ahead of time.
“We also have community health nurses that go out to people’s homes with test kits,” she added. “Sometimes when we have community events, we will make sure we have test kits there to distribute. Our service units make the decision on how many they’re giving out per household.”
A citizen of the Navajo Nation who asked not to be identified told VOA via Facebook that test kits are not currently available at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, the largest facility serving Navajo people — including those in Vanderwagen. A VOA call to the center to corroborate her statement was referred to IHS headquarters in Washington.
Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez said Friday he has been in talks with congressional leaders seeking help in getting test kits, masks and hand sanitizer.
“We appreciate the Biden-Harris administration’s proactive approach by providing free at-home test kits, but we need more action to address the unique circumstances for tribal nations and families,” Nez said.
He also expressed thanks to Arizona Congressman Tom O’Halleran, who Friday sent a letter to Zients requesting these vital supplies.
By mid-2021, the Navajo Nation appeared to have gained control of the epidemic.
Today, however, the Navajo Nation Health Department reports that cases are on the rise: As of January 28, it confirmed a total of 48,977 COVID cases and 1,612 deaths.
The toll-free number to order testing kits is 1-800-232-0233.